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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Hunger Pangs: The Empty-Stomach Problem

As families struggle to buy food, schools get creative about feeding students.
By Andrea Orr

Susan Phillips, a teacher at Enfield Elementary School, in rural Enfield, New York, recently noticed that one of her fourth-grade students was always cranky and distracted at the start of the week but turned mild mannered by Tuesday.

It wasn't a case of the Monday-morning blues -- it was hunger. Her student ate pretty well on subsidized school breakfasts, lunches, and after-school snacks, but over the weekend, he just couldn't get enough food at home. "We would feed him practically nonstop throughout the day, and by Tuesday he was back to his usual self," Phillips says.

The school got proactive and started sending its neediest students home every Friday with a backpack full of ready-to-eat provisions like peanut butter crackers, granola bars, and SpaghettiOs. Five of Phillips's twenty-eight students got permission from their parents to participate, and Monday mornings became a lot easier. "I saw a dramatic change," Phillips says.

More than half a century ago, the National School Lunch act was passed, allocating funds for nutritious meals at school, and these days many educators worry more about childhood obesity than about malnutrition. Yet hunger among children appears to be on the rise, prompting many food banks to expand distribution to schoolchildren while training teachers to identify students at risk.

Schools in thirty-nine states and in Washington, DC, send some 35,000 students home with food-filled backpacks each week -- double the number from the previous year -- through a program organized by Feeding America, a national network of food banks. Educators try to be discreet by broaching the topic with students in private and using plain, unlabeled backpacks, but many have found that children are pretty comfortable discussing hunger. "A lot of times, children are telling the teachers that they are not eating," says Jan Pruitt, CEO of the North Texas Food Bank, in Dallas, one of the largest food banks in the country.

The food bank, which works to dispel the myth that hunger is a problem confined to the homeless or the unemployed, says 40 percent of the households it serves have at least one employed adult, and many have children. Even in wealthy areas, kids can go hungry.

And though some signs of hunger, such as hoarding food, may be obvious, subtler changes in behavior or energy levels on Monday morning -- everything from hyperactivity to poor attention span -- can also signal a weekend with too little food. Physical symptoms such as puffy skin, dry eyes, or dry lips, furthermore, may indicate a vitamin deficiency. Pruitt says teachers are often surprised to learn that a "problem" student is really just hungry: "They will say, 'Oh, my gosh. I never thought of him being hungry.'"

In 2006, Feeding America estimated that one in every six U.S. children lacks adequate amounts of nutritious food on a regular basis. No comprehensive study has been conducted since then, but teachers and food-bank workers have observed the problem getting worse as rising food and fuel prices, high unemployment, and rampant home foreclosures squeeze more families. In upstate New York, the Food Bank of the Southern Tier recently started supplying more food backpacks when it heard from teachers about students showing up with headaches or other hunger-related problems that made it hard to concentrate.

"It's not a good year," says Maura Daly, vice president of government relations and advocacy at Feeding America, which is seeing a 20 percent increase in food-bank demand over last year. "I'd say it's a perfect storm."

Teachers who make an effort to identify and get help for hungry students are often rewarded with a more manageable classroom environment. Hunger in children is linked to a long list of physical and behavioral problems, from tardiness and absenteeism to anxiety, aggression, and poor social interaction. "There may be only one child in the class who is hungry," says food-bank CEO Jan Pruitt, "but his or her behavior can affect everybody."

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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